‘The great enemy of truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Too often […] we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’

John F. Kennedy

Over the last decade or little more, a lot has been said on economic reforms in India and in China. Following Einstein’s principle ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’, global media probably followed a dictum of making it simpler, and painted both the reforms under the same glass.

Nothing probably could have been further from the truth, as other than the word ‘reform’ itself, reform in China and reform in India have been as different as chalk and cheese. One realized that the proven development model of the West probably is not one-size-fits-all solution for a nation like China, the other blindly followed what the West has done without examining the context of it. One came out with something, which later got termed as ‘Beijing Consensus’; another today struggles with misfit ‘Washington Consensus mired with New Delhi policies’.

Minority opinions got buried under that flood of research papers, articles and opinions which found China and India’s growth trajectory to be similar. BRIC was coined and the world still continues to love it. But deep inside, and other than certain geographical and demographical proximity, China and India remained separated by the highest mountain range of the world.

And it manifests time and again, in all socioeconomic and governance issues, including the way both these two giant nations manage their higher education. A recent management case study on how different ‘one nation, one test’ can be, other than in text, is on the classic example by which China conducts its ‘Gaokao’ examination, taken by 9.15 million university aspirants across the nation, as the truly single ‘one nation, one test’, irrespective of their disciplines and future areas of studies (few papers vary), vis-à-vis such a sloganeering effect in India which effectively is a lie in the beginning itself, as Common Entrance Test (CET), touted to be ‘One Nation, One Test’ is truly speaking NOT a ‘one nation, one test’ even to the most ardent supporter of Ministry of Human Resources Development of India, the originator of the idea.

It even fails to qualify to be ‘one nation, one test’ for only aspiring engineering students.

Definitely, any move towards ‘one nation, one test’ is welcome and desired, particularly in a country like India. Post that article of mine, I received a request from a leading online portal on entrance tests, who requested to republish it. Five years have gone by, and our policy-makers suddenly wake up, realize something needs to be done in war-footing, and proposes one nation one test by even backdoor manipulation and tampering of the document on Minutes of the 43rd Meeting of IIT Councils, which clearly wanted scientific studies on rationalization, and therefore more time.

This is the fundamental difference between China and India. Reform in India is ad hoc, until the elephant is kicked or ticked, it simply does not want to move, as it was in 1991, and as it may be now. Reform in China is proactive, in India it is reactive. At the same time, Chinese policy-makers have time and again shown the prudency to be open to all ideas, and not necessarily only to communism or socialism one, as it embraced capitalism with the unique and distinct Chinese flavor. In management, we call it sense-and-response strategy, whereas India has this hedgehog mentality of following ‘Washington Consensus’ mired with Indian-styled ad hoc reforms, come what may, without examining whether the context demands it.

A look at the structure and subjects that Gaokao demands show China emphasizes History, English, which, in the view of any educator of higher education in any fields, are extremely important. There are few different formats of it, but it is as less as possible, and as bare minimum as needed, as fundamental as in any product design. India has now 42 academic boards in the pre-university level, each having its own syllabus and language problems. National level university entrance examinations, like IIT-JEE, AIEEE, GATE, and CAT for the prestigious IITs/NITs and IIMs are probably the only truly national tests that India conducts. However, in each of these, less than 10% of all the under-graduate and post-graduate aspirants probably appear.

In case of Gaokao, it is 100%.

On top of it, each state in India has its separate engineering tests, medical tests, management entrance tests, and more; most universities have their separate admission process. For any potential administrator looking at the whole picture, it simply is devastating.

And it also is a money making machine for respective state bodies/universities who conduct these entrance exams. There apparently is no unity in diversity in areas of higher education in India. It is not only taxing for the students and their parents, more for the underprivileged ones; it is a criminal offence.

‘One nation, one test’ is a welcome idea and we all must support it. However, it all depends on how it gets implemented. It is imperative to take opportunity of this debate and see if we can get rid of all other entrance tests in all Higher Educational Institutes (HEIs), and possibly come up with something lika Gaokao, SAT, GRE or GMAT. It may take one or two more years, but it is a worthwhile exercise. Education may be a concurrent item in our Constitution, with more onus on states than on center. Getting it right is critical. Let the reform truly be for one nation, one test for all aspirants of higher education, and not only for a fraction of engineering students.

India’s present performance in higher education is as low as it can get, quantitatively speaking, and leaving aside the quality side of the debate. A look at the three graphs (particularly Figure 2 and Figure 4, where beyond 2005 projections are found to be true) show progress made by China in higher education compared to India, whereas enrollment in primary education in India stands at nearly 60% high. Unlike 1980s, when India had more infrastructure than China, until the beginning of this millennium, we were quantitatively ahead in higher education than China, although China has been ahead in primary education. With 50% of your youth aged below 25, the whole euphoria on demographic dividend may backfire. Our Gross Enrollment Ratio now stands at around 15% vis-a-vis more than 30% of China, whereas world average is 26%. This under-performance, with the rising primary-age enrollment show the massive re-engineering needed in higher education in India.

Minor tweaking by introducing ‘One Nation, One Test’, just to replace famed IIT-JEE with an untested, unproven idea, would not serve the purpose. Let it be truly a ‘One Nation, One Test’, as ‘Gaokao’ of China is.

Prof. Ranjit Goswami works as the Director of School of Management of RK University. Opinion expressed in this article is personal. He invites you to visit his blog, Wondering Man (or take a look at his book, Wondering Man, Money & Go(l)d). You are also invited to join him on Twitter

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